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What’s Your Story?

In January 2016, newly relocated to Arizona, I decided to go cheer on the University of Arizona team at the Oro Valley Triathlon. Watching the TriCats - in bathing suits, but unfazed by the breezy 45oC conditions - inspired me to jumpstart my training. I was determined to take advantage of a swimming coach, and found out that as a UA employee, I was allowed to join the TriCats! 

Their training schedule was quickly unfolding, and I soon braved the early-morning trek to the UA rec center pool before work and walked quietly over to the pool. Feeling quite out of my element with the pearls of college students, I slid in. A moment later, the slender, dark-haired coach approached me and said, with an aloof expression, “What's Your Story?” This put me even more on edge, and my response was awkward and hazy. As his critiques of my poor swim form ensued, my sense of inadequacy intensified.

Later, I thought “I do have a story to share!” A reveal of my motivation for pursuing tri sports would help him understand why I sought coaching. When confronted, however, I found it difficult to share that although I had a passion for becoming a triathlete, I felt fearful because I had never participated in any group sport. Soon after that first coaching session, I happened to see a video of his story on the TriCats Facebook page. He seemed capable of expressing himself with ease. Why was it so difficult for me? I even struggle to write a short web page bio. Well, he has a level of personal openness that I lack.

For many of us, there is a “shock” phenomenon when queried about personal motivations. This is operative in writing many types of essays—including a career statement for scholarship or grants. Often, applicants perceive a need to promote themselves and have difficulty doing so. My first recommendation to break this impasse: Be confident, but neither apologetic nor arrogant. One's experiences, successive choices, and plans can be provided in a factual manner without exaggeration; the motivations and commitment underlying these actualities are likely to be revealed.

I also observe that applicants struggle with their plot line. I frequently find a stark contrast between the effectiveness of an individual's written essay versus their in-person recounting. Accordingly, I often counsel researchers to develop a stepwise career blueprint. The story thread can often be discovered in the process of delineating one's likes and dislikes. Hence, my second recommendation: Be specific and descriptive. Providing imagery and context on one's life or career evolution eliminates the clichés that are so often found in these essays.

Self-realization is another barrier. Another breakthrough came out when I was invited to give a presentation on my own career transitions. I opted to do some “visual thinking,” in which I created a set of graphics to describe the places that I had been over the past ~35 years. From this, I was able to develop a statement of who I am. Thus, my third recommendation: Pick 3-5 words that capture your essence. Starting with a clear vision of one's core values or traits can provide a useful springboard for such essays.

These three brainstorming tips have been instrumental in my most recent career transition, having put me in an even better position to write and speak expressively. In turn, I can now help others dig deep and write an inspired, distinctive story about both the person and program that will captivate a funder or grant reviewer.

Has reflecting on your own story helped you guide others to write personal statements?

Michele Zacks is a biomedical research development professional. She has recently entered the technology development realm where she aspires to bring her unique perspective on grant writing, informed by diverse sources such as book blogs, journalism, advertising, songwriting, and radio podcasts.